Recently released handwritten notes from a briefing of the acting attorney general on the status of Crossfire Hurricane reveal the FBI either lied about the source of intel or the British intelligence community fed information to the U.S. agents investigating Donald Trump and his associates.
As part of the pre-trial discovery in the government’s prosecution of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann, the special counsel provided defense lawyers notes taken on March 6, 2017, during a high-level briefing of acting Attorney General Dana Boente about the then-ongoing investigation into supposed Russia collusion.
Boente, who held oversight of the DOJ and FBI related to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation because of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal, received an update during the meeting from the FBI’s then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, then-assistant director of the FBI Counterintelligence Division Bill Priestap, and Counterintelligence Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok. DOJ officials Tashina Gauhar, Mary McCord, and Scott Schools took notes during the briefing, and those notes became public during the Sussmann trial that ended in an acquittal last week.
Soon after the release of the notes, Hans Mahncke and Stephen McIntyre detailed for The Federalist, several passages that indicated the FBI had lied to the DOJ during the March 6, 2017 meeting in numerous ways. From the cryptic notes, Mahncke and McIntyre deciphered and exposed several significant false storylines sold to the acting attorney general, making their article a must-read.
While any lies, misrepresentations, or material omissions matter—or should, especially when told to the acting attorney general related to an investigation connected to the president of the United States, the note’s references to “CROWN reporting” prove particularly significant because of the FISA court’s insistence that the DOJ included Christopher Steele’s background as an MI6 agent in the FISA application prior to the secret surveillance court issuing an order to surveil Carter Page.
The phrase “CROWN Reporting” appeared multiple times in one set of handwritten notes taken during McCabe, Priestap, and Strzok’s March 6, 2017, FBI briefing of the DOJ and Acting Attorney General Boente. Next to “CROWN Reporting,” the notes referenced “convention,” Crimea” and “NATO” and “soften stance for exchange of Russian energy stocks.” These notations fell under the header of points related to Manafort.
A second reference to “CROWN source reporting” came during the FBI’s briefing of Boente concerning the investigation of Carter Page, with the notation following the general discussion of Page.
Huge Implications No Matter the Source
The notes do not elaborate on the “CROWN source” or who provided the “CROWN source reporting.” There are two possibilities, both of which have huge implications for the ongoing special counsel investigation.
First, the claimed “CROWN source” could be former MI6 spy Steele. To date, Steele remains the only person with a connection to British intelligence publicly known to have provided the FBI with information related to Trump and individuals connected to Trump during the Russia collusion investigation.
But if by “CROWN source” the FBI meant Steele, the individual briefing Boente lied to him in several ways, did so in a material way, and there is likely a paper trail that can confirm an earlier, similar lie by FBI agents.
While Steele had at one time served in the British intelligence service, his MI6 status ended long ago, when he retired in 2009 to start the private intelligence service Orbis Business Intelligence. Further, as the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported more than two years ago, Steele told the OIG that the source network he used to compile the memoranda, referred to colloquially as the Steele dossier, did not involve sources from his time as an MI6 agent. On the contrary, his sources were “developed entirely in the period after he retired from government service.”
So not only was Steele not a “CROWN source,” his supposed “intel” also lacked any connection to “Crown Source Reporting.” Accordingly, unless the FBI had a still publicly unknown “CROWN source” who provided the information on which agents briefed the DOJ during the March 6, 2017 meeting, they lied to the DOJ.
If They Lied, It Really Matters
Falsely attributing “intel” to a “CROWN source” proves significant, and not merely for Boente’s oversight of Crossfire Hurricane, but also for Boente’s decision to approve the third application to surveil Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). And the DOJ’s representation of a connection between Steele and British intelligence in the FISA applications appeared dispositive to the FISA court’s decision to authorize surveillance of Page.
Two little-noticed passages, separated by some 50 pages in the OIG’s 478-page report on FISA abuse, revealed the importance the FISA court put on Steele’s connection to British intelligence in ordering surveillance of Page. According to the OIG, before filing its official FISA application, the DOJ submitted a “read copy” to the FISA court to obtain feedback from the FISA court’s legal advisor on whether the application met the statutory requirements and on any issues of concern raised by the legal advisor or the FISA judge handling the application.
In the first read copy submitted to the FISA court related to Page, the application “contained a description of the source network that included the fact that Steele relied upon a Primary Sub-source who used a network of sub-sources, and that neither Steele nor the Primary Sub-source had direct access to the information being reported.” The draft application “also contained a separate footnote on each sub-source with a brief description of his/her position or access to the information he/she was reporting.”
After reviewing the read copy, the FISA court’s “legal advisor asked how it was that Steele had a network of sub-sources.” In response, the government’s Office of Intelligence (OI) attorney “provided additional information to him regarding Steele’s past employment history.”
The FISA court’s legal advisor then requested that additional information be included in the final application, resulting in the final version of the October 2016 FISA application including a footnote detailing Steele’s prior work for British intelligence. The FISA court granted the revised FISA application, ordering surveillance of Page to begin in October 2016. The FISA court renewed the surveillance order three additional times, once in December, again in March, when Boente signed the application, and finally on June 29, 2022, when Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein signed the final FISA application.
All of the applications referenced Steele’s past service in British intelligence, but, as noted above, Steele’s source network was unrelated to his government work and came entirely from his private work. Given that the FISA court’s legal advisor questioned “how it was that Steele had a network of sub-sources,” and that the advisor directed the OI attorney to expressly include Steele’s previous work as an MI6 agent in the application, the FISA court clearly believed Steele’s network of sources came from his time as a British agent.
Further, given the significance the FISA court placed on that fact, it seems likely the FISA court would have denied the surveillance order had it been told the truth—that Steele’s network of sources had been privately acquired.
FBI Liars Could Still Be Held Accountable
The FBI’s representation during the March 6, 2017 meeting that the supposed intel related to Manafort and Page came from “CROWN sources,”—again, assuming the agent meant Steele—suggests the Crossfire Hurricane team deceived the DOJ from the beginning, resulting in the OI attorney representing to the FISA court that Steele’s network of sources were sources used by British intelligence. That deception also likely affected Boente’s decision to sign the second renewal application.
While these events occurred more than five years ago, and a five-year statute of limitations governs false statement offenses, the D.C. Circuit has held that if a defendant engages in a scheme “to falisf[y], conceal, or coverup” material facts, the limitations period does not begin to run until the scheme ends.
In this case, then, any FBI agents involved in concealing from the DOJ during the final preparation and review of the June 29, 2017, FISA application that Steele’s sources were not “CROWN sources” or connected to his work in British intelligence could still face criminal liability.
Go Get ‘Em, Durham
Further, while the Sussmann trial proved memories fail—sometimes conveniently—uncovering the individuals responsible for representing Steele’s source network as connected to his past life as an MI6 agent seems a relatively straightforward venture given what we learned from the special counsel’s conviction of Kevin Clinesmith.
Clinesmith pleaded guilty nearly two years ago to altering an email related to Page to make it appear that Page “was not a source” for the CIA. Clinesmith’s undoing came from the fact that in preparing the FISA application and renewals, the various government actors used email to confirm details, including with Clinesmith.
The OIG report on FISA abuse detailed that process, noting there were many “back-and-forth exchange[s]” “between the OI Attorney and the FBI, during which the OI Attorney asked many questions about Page, as well as about Steele’s reporting and the structure and access of his source network.” “To further address reliability, the OI Attorney sought information from the FBI to describe the source network in the FISA application,” according to the OIG report. And that information-gathering process included email exchanges and written summaries of briefings.
Either that briefing left the OI attorney with the impression that Steele’s source network came from his MI6 work, or after the FISA court legal advisor asked, “how it was that Steele had a network of sub-sources,” the OI attorney pushed the FBI for more information. If the latter, emails likely memorialize the exchanges.
Whether the FBI agents affirmatively misrepresented Steele’s source network as connected to his British intelligence work in their communiques with the OI attorney, and in turn the OI attorney relayed that information to the FISA court, is unknown to us, but hopefully not to Special Counsel Durham.
Even if no one lied to the OI attorney and he merely assumed Steele’s source network carried over from his time with MI6, a misrepresentation to Boente during the March 6, 2017, briefing that Steele was a “CROWN source” still matters because the FISA surveillance orders were renewed two more times after that meeting.
That, of course, is assuming the FBI meant Steele when they referenced a “CROWN source”—something not entirely clear. More on that shortly.
Margot Cleveland is The Federalist’s senior legal correspondent. She is also a contributor to National Review Online, the Washington Examiner, Aleteia, and Townhall.com, and has been published in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
Cleveland is a lawyer and a graduate of the Notre Dame Law School, where she earned the Hoynes Prize—the law school’s highest honor. She later served for nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk for a federal appellate judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Cleveland is a former full-time university faculty member and now teaches as an adjunct from time to time.
As a stay-at-home homeschooling mom of a young son with cystic fibrosis, Cleveland frequently writes on cultural issues related to parenting and special-needs children. Cleveland is on Twitter at @ProfMJCleveland. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.